Inflammation gets a bad rap, but it has its moments. When your knee swells up after you bang it against a desk drawer, that’s inflammation coming to the rescue, an essential part of the body’s natural healing response as your immune system leaps into action.
Where inflammation earns its bad reputation is when it becomes a large-scale reaction within the body.
“Chronic inflammation affects your entire body and negatively impacts health,” says Jackie Topol, RD, integrative dietitian at Integrative Health and Wellbeing. It can lead to oxidative stress, which occurs when too many overly reactive molecules—known as free radicals—are formed and begin to do damage to cells, including their DNA. Topol notes that over time, this constant and cumulative damage can lead to serious health problems including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and arthritis, as well as thyroid issues.
The good news is that there are ways to bring those inflammation levels down and call off the attack. One simple way to start: Making smart, strategic food choices.
We asked Topol as well as registered dietician nutritionist Lisa Markley and functional nutrition coach Jill Grunewald—co-authors of The Essential Thyroid Cookbook—to share some of the best foods for keeping your body on track.
This golden spice (pictured above) has been having a moment, largely because of its anti-inflammatory powers. Its distinctive hue comes from beta carotene, which is highly beneficial for the immune system, and it’s rich in curcumin, a highly anti-inflammatory compound.
Want an even bigger boost? Pair turmeric with ginger, which is also anti-inflammatory. Markley suggests making golden milk by combining ginger, turmeric, and coconut or almond milk, and warming the blend before drinking. Consider it an anti-inflammation nightcap. Be sure to add a little black pepper, which helps activate the turmeric.
A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that those who consumed the most nuts had a 51 percent lower risk of dying from an inflammatory disease than those who avoided nuts altogether. Also, people with lower levels of vitamin B6—which is in most nuts—tended to have higher levels of inflammation.
Markley and Grunewald suggest soaking nuts overnight, then draining, rinsing, and drying in the morning, because it makes their nutrients more available to your body. All nuts can have this effect, they note, so go with your favorites.
Omega-3 fatty acids that are present in some types of fish, such as wild-caught salmon, mackerel, arctic char and tuna, can be helpful for lowering your levels of inflammatory proteins, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Even fish oil supplements may help, the organization notes, because it can reduce the kind of joint swelling and pain that comes with inflammation.
If you exercise regularly (which we all do, right?), cherries are particularly helpful, because studies show they can help bring on faster recovery from intense workouts and lessen post-exertion muscle pain. They have an anti-inflammatory effect, as well as high levels of antioxidants. “By moving toward a more plant-based diet and eating lots of antioxidant-rich foods, we can help bring the inflammation down,” Topol says.
Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, Swiss chard, and collards contain high amounts of vitamin E. Research suggests this nutrient protects the body against some types of cytokines, inflammation-producing molecules that can lead to pain. Like tart cherries, dark greens also boast plenty of antioxidants.